I’ve recently been interviewed by Mashable and The Verge to comment on a research paper that was published last week on the viewership patterns of Wikipedia articles about aircraft crashes: The memory remains: Understanding collective memory in the digital age, by Ruth García-Gavilanes, Anders Mollgaard, Milena Tsvetkova, and Taha Yasseri of the University of Oxford.
The paper focuses on memory triggering patterns, showing that new traumatic events induce attention to similar old ones, and that this attention can only be partially explained by direct hyperlinks between the source article (about the new event) and the target article (about the past event). The research examines the similarities and differences between the source and the target articles, and proposes a mathematical model to predict remembering. The authors showed that similarity of events in terms of timing, number of deaths and page activity play a significant role in directing users’ attention from the source to the target event. Interestingly, the authors found that the closer two events are in time, the more they tend to be associated (so recent past events may be more salient in users’ memory), and that incidents with many deaths tend to be remembered the most. The authors made an interesting attempt to mathematically model remembering, which is a novel contribution to the field of digital collective memory research.
This is an interesting piece of research attempting for the first time to mathematically model remembering and predict the flow of attention towards past traumatic events. In the past, collective memories could only be studied employing a considerable effort in qualitative research, by going to the people and observe or interview them. Now, the widespread diffusion of new digital media has raised the need to take into account the relationship between memory and media. As Andrew Hoskins said, we live in a “digital memory culture” where we are always connected, obsessed with recording, keeping track, retrieving and archiving information, worried about information loss. In this culture, through Web 2.0 and social networks, we use virtual places where we can edit our lives, store and make immediately accessible our affective and personal memories. Digital media allow the creation of a new kind of “hybrid” memories, that are private, but also public because they are out in the Web and resistant to total erasure. They also allow researchers to adopt a new approach and unobtrusively tap into large and diverse amounts of data, exploiting new opportunities toward quantitative and longitudinal studies on a large scale, as I explored during my PhD.